I scoured markets in East Java on a recent trip, and was very disappointed by what I found there. There were good things - the fruit, primarily - but the vegetables and much of the seafood that I encountered there was limited and looked tired. Sometimes things were much worse than that. I'm sure there are other markets on that huge island where the produce is brilliant; but I didn't trip over any.
Chinese markets are as different as the provinces themselves. In Shanghai, you get a good selection of shrimp, freshwater fish, ducks, pork and chickens - but a usually bland assortment of bloated and tasteless vegetables (monster carrots, perma-pink tomatoes, withered greens).
Head Southwest to Sichuan or Hunan, and this all changes: there's great charcuterie, vibrant vegetables, but the handling of the raw meats often leaves something to be desired. In Gansu and Xinjiang, vegetables are replaced by grapes or dried fruit (and root vegetables), and pork is chased away by hunks of mutton.
There are countless variables that affect the local market: affluence, season, religion, the temperature that day, the time you visit. No one buys a hanging piece of pork at 7pm, in August, in China for instance. It's just not sensible.
This year I've traveled through much of Southeast Asia. And I can honestly say (I'm sure there are people out there that will disagree with me) that Bangkok's neighborhood markets are the best I've come across. The variety of herbs, greens and vegetables; the quality of the poultry and the pork; the availability of freshly caught seafood; and perhaps most importantly, the fastidious cleanliness of the vendors and their care for their products can't be beat. There are other places that do certain things better. But I haven't found another place where it all looks so good.
I can slide down to my market at 4pm, and pick up a half-dozen tiger prawns like these:
They're crisp and fresh and straight from the sea. Beside the fishmonger, a lady's freshly pounded curry pastes are displayed, saving me a very time consuming (and irritating to my neighbors, as I've recently learned) half hour on the business end of a pestle. And just beside the curry lady I can pick up one of my favorite things: freshly pressed coconut milk and cream.
As I clean the prawns and pick herbs from mottled stalks, the cream rises up above the coconut milk, and I separate it with a spoon, slowly admiring its texture (you can see the separation in that plastic bag). It's viscous and nutty and really nothing like what comes out of a carton. I eat spoonfuls of it as I break the cream in a wok, where I'll fry that old lady's paste, which will fill my house with the smell of shallots, coriander, chilies, lemongrass and garlic. Before you know it there's a beautiful red curry of plump prawns, and a sour little salad of cucumber, chili and coriander for dinner, and I barely spent eight bucks. Did I mention the Thai rice?
An unplanned trip to the market makes me appreciate how lucky I am to live here.